Monday, May 3, 2010

DeKalb plans a county-wide redistricting instead of closing schools. - AJC

DeKalb school closures delayed a year

DeKalb County parents will have to wait to find out the long-term fate of their schools. For now, the county will not close any of them this year.

In a total reversal from last week, the school board voted unanimously on Monday night to delay school closures.

The board now plans to conduct a county-wide redistricting and close 10-12 schools next school year, interim superintendent Ramona Tyson said.

Last month, the board voted on a tentative budget that included $115 million in cuts, including closing four elementary schools to save $2.35 million. Monday’s vote removed the school closings from that budget, which is up for approval next week.

The board now will scramble to find another $2.35 million in cuts or consider a property tax increase, board chairman Tom Bowen said.

The board’s reversal came after school officials met with a representative of the state Department of Education on Friday.

“The state indicated we need to have a comprehensive solution and look at all schools,” Bowen said.

The district now has about 11,000 empty seats. Closing a dozen schools will save the district $10 million-$20 million and bring in additional state funds for renovations to the remaining open schools, Bowen said.

Tyson called for the meeting with the state because of a tenuous relationship with the previous administration, including former superintendent Crawford Lewis and former chief operating officer Patricia “Pat” Reid, formerly Pat Pope, board members said. Both are subjects of a district attorney’s investigation into possible misconduct involving the district’s multi-million dollar school construction program.

Lewis, who was terminated last month, was the one who initially proposed closing four schools this year and another eight next year. However, he never consulted the state about that plan.

“We weren’t as open and transparent as we needed to be with the state,” Bowen said. “We didn’t match our plan with theirs. If we’re going to go through this closure process, let’s do it right.”

On Friday, school officials learned they would receive more state funding if they closed all of the schools at once, Bowen said.

Bowen said it was the state’s advice – and not the hundreds of complaints from parents – that led to the board’s decision to delay closures.

Hundreds of parents have spent the past two months protesting school closures. Many complained that the district was looking to close only schools in south DeKalb, which included primarily African-American students. The majority of the district’s 11,000 empty seats are in south DeKalb, school officials said.

“I’m not tone deaf to the people of DeKalb County. My vote was based on the feedback I got from the people of DeKalb County,” said board member Eugene Walker, who has argued for redistricting and delaying school closures.

Bowen said he hopes parents will be more receptive to the closures now that they have more time to digest them. Administrators are scheduled to bring a proposed redistricting and 12 possible schools for closure to the board by Sept. 15.

The board will look at some of the recommendations made by the Citizens Planning Task Force, a 20-member group of residents that spent several months reviewing data to help identify schools for closure.

However, the task force likely will not be involved in the redistricting because of the September deadline and the amount of work that needs to be done, board members said.

Eric Stanfield came to the meeting to criticize the board for moving forward with closures. Instead, the parent was thankful for its latest position.

“I congratulate you on not closing any schools,” he told the board. “When you start closing schools, it drastically affects what goes on around those schools, whether it be housing or businesses.”

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